Year of the Flagellants (1260)

Article by Susan J. Palmer, Enyclopedia of millennialism and millennial movements (publisher link), "Year of the Flagellants (1260)", Routledge (2000).

The Flagellants were participants in a popular men’s mass movement of penitential self-flagellation, generally explained as an apocalyptic and ritual response to the Bubonic Plague in the thirteenth century.

The Black Death originated in Asia and spread westward across European trade-shipping routes between 1347 and 1351. It was carried by rats hosing fleas who transmitted the deadly bacteria Pasteurella pestis to human victims. Over 40 percent of the population of Europe (and one-third of Britain) perished. The epidemic would flare up in densely populated cities, then suddenly vanish, conveying the impression of Divine Wrath. King Magnus II of Sweden issued a proclamation warning, “God for the sins of men has struck the world with this great punishment of death.”

Whipping or auto-flagellation was a long-established, ascetic discipline of the Western church and was practiced systemically in Italian monasteries in the eleventh century. Its purpose was to bargain with God for forgiveness of sin, and to imitate the sufferings of Christ. When Joachim of Fiore’s The Everlasting Gospel appeared in northern Italy in 1254, claiming the Last Days of the Second Age would be marked by the moral decline of the papacy, this sparked a lay ascetic movement with strong anticlerical sentiments led by renegade priests. In preparation for the year 1260 and Joachim’s Third Age of Spirit, thousands participated in penitential orgies. Rallied by the hermit of Perugia, processions of priests, men, and boys marched south with burning candles, singing hymns; and aristocrats and town magistrates joined ranks with peasants and the urban poor.

Various charismatic leaders interpreted recent hardships as mere preludes to imminent catastrophe in which God would destroy the world through fires and earthquakes. Flagellants performed their penance not merely to save themselves, but as sacrificial victims taking on and atoning for the sins of the world, in order to avert the plague and rescue the world from destruction. In aw of their divine mission, the townspeople of Europe welcomed and hosted them and absorbed their anticlerical attitudes.

The movement spread north through Germany and the Rhineland where the Italian leaders received a vision of the “Heavenly Letter,” a marble tablet born by an angel to the altar of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It told of divine wrath at the sins of usury, blasphemy, and adultery, and claimed that God’s first acts of vengeance had been halted by the mercy of the Virgin Mary. It promised that if Flagellants held processions for thirty-three-and a-half days (years in the life of Jesus), then God would stop the tribulation, and the land would renew its bounty.

The Flagellants wore white hooded robes with red crosses, carried statues of the weeping Virgin, and sung Stabet Mater. Led by lay masters, they renounced bathing, shaving, and physical comfort, and were vowed to thirty-three days of silence and celibacy. Marching from town to town, they gathered before the chapel in the central square, then stripped, fell to the ground in cruciform postures, where they were whipped by their brother penitents. They then faced the chapel, singing and rhythmically beating themselves with leather scourges studded with iron spikes until they were pouring blood down their shoulders. Many exhibited trance states and were perhaps impervious to pain. The German Flagellants became an anticlerical movement led by poor tradesmen who believed by beating themselves until they became free of sin they thereby no longer required the intercession of the clergy in the sacraments. German bishops excommunicated outstanding leaders as Antichrist plays were performed on the street. John of Witerthur wrote in 1348 that these pestilences were “messianic woes” leading to the millennium, when a warrior-messiah — probably the resurrected Emperor Frederick — would arise and kill all the clergy, and then force wealthy landowners to intermarry with the poor.

Jewish conspiracy theories spread through the Flagellants’ ranks; that Jews, whose secret headquarters was in Toledo, were poisoning village wells and infecting Christians. Between 1348 and 1349, thousands of Jews were massacred in riots and pogroms incited by the Flagellants between Carcassonne and Brussels.


  • Cohn, Norman. (1970) The Pursuit of the Millennium. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Zeigler, Philip (1971) The Black Death. New York: Harper & Row